Her life was the stuff that great novels are made of: born on November 1, 1864, Elizabeth, or “Ella” as she was known to her loved ones, was described as “the most beautiful woman in Europe.” She was a Princess of Germany, her parents were the Princess Alice of England and Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse and by the Rhine; her maternal grandmother was Queen Victoria. She was brought up by Queen Victoria after being orphaned at the age of fourteen. “Ella” had many suitors, but rejected them all, choosing in the end, to marry for love, her childhood friend Sergei, who also happened to be the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia, the fifth son of Emperor Alexander II of Russia and Princess Marie of Hesse and by the Rhine. “Everyone fell in love with her from the moment she came to Russia from her beloved Darmstadt” wrote one of Sergei’s cousins. This princess story was not the fluff of fairy tales, however. Elizabeth’s true beauty was hidden with Christ in the depth of her soul.
Elizabeth and Sergei were married at the Chapel of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in 1884. Before her marriage, Elizabeth was a Protestant, but after a trip to the Holy Land, she converted to the Orthodox Church in 1891. She took the name “Feodorovna,” in honor of the Feodorovskaya Icon of the Mother of God, patroness of the Romanov house.
The couple never had children of their own; they frequently organized parties for children, and eventually became foster parents of Sergei’s niece and nephew. Elizabeth had encouraged her youngest sister Alix to also convert to Orthodoxy after Alix had refused the first proposal of Sergei’s nephew, Tsar Nicholas II, on the basis of the difference of religion.
The Duchess Elizabeth and her husband were deeply religious, and so she was greatly distressed when the Grand Duke made the decision to send soldiers to surround the homes of 20,000 Jews, who, with no notice, were suddenly expelled from Moscow. At the time she was heard to make a dark prophesy: “God will punish us severely.”
On February 17, 1905, Elizabeth felt the concussion of a bomb blast. Her beloved husband had been assassinated by a bomb thrown by the Socialist Revolutionary, Ivan Kalyayev.
“Grand Duchess Elisabeth heard the explosion and felt the shock; she rushed outside and saw the dismembered body of her husband strewn around the square. She knelt in the snow and helped collect the remains and, almost incredibly found the strength to arrange for the transportation to a hospital of the grand duke’s coachman, who had been severely wounded. Visiting the dying man later, she told him that the grand duke was well and safe, and had in fact sent her, enabling the man to die peacefully.”
“The lofty spirit with which she took the tragedy astounded everyone: she had the moral strength even to visit in prison her husband’s assassin, Kaliaev, hoping to soften his heart, with her Christian forgiveness. ‘Who are you?’ he asked upon meeting her. ‘I am his widow,’ she replied, ‘why did you kill him?’ ‘I did not want to kill you,’ he said. ‘I saw him several times before when I had the bomb with me, but you were with him and I could not bring myself to touch him.’ ‘You did not understand that by killing him you were killing me,’ she said. Then she began to talk of the horror of his crime before God. The Gospel was in her hands and she begged the criminal to read it and left it in his cell. Leaving the prison, the Grand Duchess said: ‘My attempt was unsuccessful, but, who knows, perhaps at the last minute he will understand his sin and repent.“— Ludmila Koehler, Saint Elisabeth the New Martyr
This was a turning point in Elizabeth’s life. Our Lord transformed her grief into a desire to serve God. From that point on, the only crown she would wear would be one of thorns — in imitation of her suffering Lord. She sold her possessions and jewels — even her wedding ring — and with the proceeds she opened the convent of Saints Martha and Mary, and other women joined her. Soon after, on the grounds, she opened a hospital, a chapel, pharmacy, and orphanage. Elizabeth and her nuns visited the worst slums in Moscow, working tirelessly to help the orphaned and the poor. Her convent handed out 300 meals to the poor each day, who called her “the Guardian Angel of Moscow.”
The last meeting she had with her sister Alix, now the Tsarina Alexandra, was in St. Petersburg, 1916. Elizabeth expressed to the Tsarina her deep concern about the influence the wicked Rasputin had over her sister. Alexandra didn’t heed her sister’s advice. In 1917, the Bolsheviks seized power. Elizabeth chose to remain in Russia to serve the poor.
Three days after Easter, in 1918, Vladimir Lenin ordered the Soviet Secret Police to arrest Elizabeth, together with another nun of her order and other members of the Royal family. Lenin was quoted as saying “virtue with the crown on it is a greater enemy to the revolution than a hundred tyrant tsars.” They were taken to an abandoned mine, beaten and thrown into a pit 66 feet (20 meters) deep, landing on an outcropping. Though injured in the fall, the sound of prayers and hymns rose from the pit for a long time, only resulting in rage from their captors, who threw down two grenades to silence them. One member died, but the singing continued, resulting in the Bolshevik leader ordering brushwood be thrown into the pit and set on fire.
“It is easier for a scrawny shrub,
to withstand a mighty fire
than for the nature of sin to [withstand]
the power of love.”— St. Elizaveta
Three months later, the White Army discovered the bodies of Elizabeth and the others in the pit. Most had died of either injuries or starvation. As a last act of compassion, Sr. Elizabeth had used her own religious veil, or wimple, to bandage the head wound of the dying Prince Ioann — which calls to mind the compassion shown to Jesus by the holy woman known as “Veronica,” who, as legends of the middle ages told, wiped the bleeding Face of Jesus on the way to Calvary. Elizabeth’s body was first transferred in secret to Beijing, China, where she was buried in a Russian Orthodox cemetery. Later, her remains were taken to Jerusalem to the Church of St. Mary Magdalene at Gethsemane in Jerusalem, a church that she and her husband helped to build. She is venerated in the Russian Orthodox Church as a Saint and Martyr.
“… there are times, there are ages, when nothing is more desirable, nothing more beautiful than the crown of thorns.”— Russian Poet, Nekrasov
“He is our head, crowned, not with glory, but with the thorns of our sins. As members of that head, crowned with thorns, we should be ashamed to live in luxury; His purple robes are a mockery rather than an honor. When Christ comes again, His death shall no longer be proclaimed, and we shall know that we also have died, and that our life is hidden with Him.”— St. Bernard, Abbott